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Buddhism and Empire III: the Dharma King

September 2, 2008

Sam van Schaik
Early Tibet
August 21, 2008

Among the most celebrated figures in Tibetan history are the "dharma
kings" (chögyal in Tibetan) who supported Buddhism and helped it to
take root in Tibet. And probably the most important of all the dharma
kings is Tri Song Detsen. Prince Song Detsen was given the title Tri
- meaning "throne" - when he came of age, and he wasted little time
in curbing the anti-Buddhist movement that had taken root in recent
years since the death of his father, the previous king.

Seeking Buddhist teachers, first from China, then from Nepal and
India, he went about getting Tibet its first proper monastery. That
monastery, Samyé, was built with the help of the Nepalese abbot
S'a-ntaraks.i-ta and the tantric adept from modern Pakistan,
Padmasambhava. The king also supervised the ordination of the first
Tibetan monks, and a vast project for the translation of Buddhist
scriptures into Tibetan.

That is the briefest of summaries of the traditional Tibetan view of
Tri Song Detsen's achievements. If we turn to the Dunhuang
manuscripts, we find - for once - that they are much in agreement
with that traditional view. Tri Song Detsen is celebrated in quite a
few Dunhuang poems and prayers as a great Buddhist king. Most of
these celebrations of the king have already been translated (see the
References section below) but I recently came across one that seems
to have been missed. And it's really quite interesting indeed…

* * *
IOL Tib J 466 is a scroll with a long prayer of offerings to the
buddhas, bodhisattvas, deities, dharma kings and patrons of Buddhism.
First among the kings is, of course, Tri Song Detsen.

"I make offering to the spiritual teachers of our own Tibet,
The great dharma kings, like the great king Tri Song Detsen,
He who has mastered the royal methods of fortune,
And rules the kingdom with the sword of the sky-gods,
The magically emanated lord Tri Song Detsen;
And to those teachers who have gone to nirva-n.a,
Including Dharma-s'oka, Kanis.ka-, S'i-la Atida-na and so on;
To all of these propagators of the teachings
I respectfully make the offering of homage."

I suspect that this prayer dates from not too long after the reign of
Tri Song Detsen himself. Every aspect of the scroll - paper, ink,
handwriting, and the arrangement of the text on the page - is similar
to the sutras commissioned by the last Tibetan kings at the end of
the Tibetan Empire in the 840s. So the scroll may have been written
only a half-century after the end of Tri Song Detsen's reign.

The prayer puts Tri Song Detsen right into the historical tradition
of dharma kings. Dharma-s'oka is of course the famous As'oka, ruler
of the great Mauryan Empire in the 3rd century BC, and patron of
Buddhism. Some of the edicts that he had carved throughout his empire
still survive, and confirm that he was, to some extent, a Buddhist
king. He is said to have convened the third council of the Buddhist
sangha to clear up some doctrinal issues. As for Kanis.ka, he was the
ruler of the Kushan Empire, based in Gandhara in the 2nd century AD,
and we have evidence from the coins made in his reign that he
supported Buddhism (among other religions). He is also credited with
organizing a Buddhist council for the compilation of a Sanskrit Buddhist canon.

Considering the importance of the councils that As'oka and Kanis.ka
are supposed to have convened, it's not surprising that the debate
between Indian and Chinese Buddhism organized by Tri Song Detsen is
often considered to be another council - in the grand tradition of
dharma kings.

Of the identity of the king called S'i-la Atida-na I have no idea.
The first part of his name means "moral conduct" and the second
"supreme giving." The extreme generosity of bodhisattvas in some
Buddhist stories is sometimes called "supreme giving". One of the
most popular of these stories is that of Prince Vessantara, who gave
away his wife and children to a cruel Brahman (perhaps we should
translate atida-na as "extreme giving"). In the end of the story the
family is reunited and Vessantara is crowned king. So it could be
this king that is intended here. I welcome any alternative suggestions…

*  *  *
As well as associating Tri Song Detsen with this Indian tradition of
dharma kings, the prayer highlights the divine and magical nature of
Tibetan kingship. The king has "mastered the royal methods of
fortune." What I've translated here as "fortune" is the enigmatic
word phywa. In later Tibet it refers to luck, fortune-telling and the
like. During the time of Tibet's imperial kings, it seems to have
been the special possession of the kings, but it as a method rather
than a personal quality.

In any case, there wasn't much distinction between the kings and the
gods. The prayer also says that Tri Song Detsen "rules the kingdom
with the sword of the sky-gods." What does this mean? The Tibetan
kings were thought to be the descendents (literally!) of a race of
gods who lived in the sky, and came down to earth to perform their
kingly duty. Instead of dying, they ascended back to the sky - beamed
up along a "sky-cord" made of light. Later generations, including Tri
Song Detsen, were said to have lost the sky-cord connection.
Nevertheless, they were still the children of the gods (lhasé). That
sword is an interesting symbol of the king's military power,
something that is downplayed - if not totally ignored - by many later
Buddhist historians. Did Tri Song Detsen really carry a sword said to
be inherited from his divine ancestors?

So it seems to me that in this prayer Tri Song Detsen stands
somewhere between the earlier vision of Tibetan kings as agents of
the divine - with magical military power and special royal methods of
prognostication - and ideal of the Buddhist king as a patron and
practitioner of Buddhism above all else.

*  *  *
Tibetan text:
IOL Tib J 466/3: 5r.9-12:

"bdag cag bod khams kyI dge ba'I bshes gnyen
rgyal po chen po khri srong lde brtsan lastsogs pa
chos kyI rgyal po chen po rnams la mchod pa
phyva'i rgyal thabs mnga' brnyes shing
chab srId gnam gyI lde mtshon can
'phrul rje khrI srong lde brtsan dang
dar ma sho ka/ka ni ska-
shI la a tI da n.ya lastsogs
ston pa mya ngan 'das phyIn
bstan pa rgyas mdzad thams cad la
phyag 'tshal bsnyen bkur mchod pa dbul"

1. Karmay, Samten. 1998. "King Dza / Tsa and Vajraya-na" in The Arrow
and the Spindle: Studies in History, Myths, Rituals and Beliefs in
Tibet. Kathmandu: Mandala Book Point.
2. Richardson, Hugh Edward. 1998. "The Dharma that fell from Heaven"
in High Peaks, Pure Earth: Collected Writings on Tibetan History and
Culture, Edited with an Introduction by Michael Aris. London: Serindia.
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